They're smart, fast, usually right

Lawyers: These closing days of the legislative session are the busiest for the Office of the Counsel to the General Assembly.

March 17, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

These are questions that make you go, "Hmm." They stop you in your tracks, rattle your brain as you wonder, "Well, who really owns Chincoteague Bay?"

Robert A. Zarnoch gets such questions every day. He's chief of the Office of the Counsel to the General Assembly, four assistant attorneys general who give Maryland's legislators legal advice.

Think of them as general assignment lawyers with 188 clients.

"We couldn't do our jobs without them," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "They do a good job. They're smart. They're fast, and they're usually right."

Now is their busiest time. Committees are voting on hundreds of pieces of legislation, killing some, approving others. Members are asking: Why do we need this bill? Special Orders from the Senate and House floors generate legal opinions by Zarnoch and his staff.

The office has had more than 100 inquiries since the legislature began its 90-day session two months ago. There will be less and less time for written responses as the session enters its hectic final days. Opinions will be delivered by phone, sometimes to a legislator in the midst of a floor debate.

"During the last two weeks, the most common question is: `Can we take this bill and mash it together with this bill?' " said Zarnoch, 55, who has been with the office since 1978.

The Chincoteague question came early in the session. Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat, needed to know for his bill to designate the state's coastal bays, such as Chincoteague and Assawaman, as part of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area. Turns out the state owns the bays "for the benefit of the public."

State legislators file thousands of bills each year. Often they pose constitutional questions. Can the Maryland Film Office set up criteria to give preference in awarding state grants to films that contain "wholesome depictions of Maryland life"? No. You'd have a First Amendment problem.

But you could withhold a state tax exemption from films made in Maryland that show actors smoking. Sen. J. Robert Hooper's bill seeks to do that. Now, it's up to the Senate budget committee to decide whether to pass the Harford County Republican's measure.

"We do hundreds of these letters every year," said Zarnoch. "I mean, they cover the waterfront."

Flip through the office log book and you can trace the big issues of past sessions. You can follow last year's arguments over trigger locks, or the saga of Larry Young's expulsion from the state Senate in 1998. That prompted several questions, including one from the Democratic Central Committee in Young's Baltimore district, which wanted to know whether it could nominate him to fill the vacancy. (The answer: No.)

The issues come and go. Some are dispensed with in an afternoon. Others, such as the legal battle over a tax exemption for an all-male club, take years to resolve. Some issues return again and again.

A few years ago, Sen. Richard F. Colburn wanted to know the procedures for letting the Eastern Shore secede from Maryland.

"This is not a Johnny-come-lately sentiment," said Colburn, a Caroline County Republican. "There's been a genuine desire for Eastern Shore statehood that goes back centuries."

Zarnoch's office wrote back that Colburn's bill to let the Eastern Shore vote on the issue wouldn't survive constitutional muster. Secession doesn't work that way anymore. You have to get a resolution through both houses of the General Assembly. Then, the governor has to sign the measure. Then Congress gets into the act.

None of that mattered in the end. The Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee killed the bill.

The office doesn't make value judgments. The lawyers just give the facts, usually presented in straightforward fashion with only a touch of legalese. Once in a while, though, an issue comes along that demands a less restrained response.

For instance, "Short People," the Randy Newman hit song with the lines: "Short people got no reason to live. ... They got little baby legs. They stand so low. You got to pick 'em up, Just to say hello."

A funny song, a satire. But former Del. Isaiah Dixon Jr. was not amused. He wanted "Short People" banned from Maryland's airwaves. He wanted radio stations and employees who played it charged criminally and fined up to $500. What he wanted was a clear violation of the First Amendment provisions for free speech.

The office's response, dated Feb. 20, 1978, remains a favorite.

"What thin reasoning could the State assert to justify a broadcast ban on `Short People' when DJs are free to play `Tiny Dancer,'" wrote Francis Burch, then an assistant attorney general. "Would Pee Wee Reese, Tom Thumb and Little Richard have to change their names?"

That was a rare case. The laughter is muted these days, but the response to bills continues.

"Some of them have no chance of ever being passed, but that doesn't mean you don't answer them," said Zarnoch.

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